“… they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mk 16:8)
Terror and amazement, fear and silence. The silence of the tomb; the silence of Holy Saturday, when the earth goes still, Jesus in his grave.
Silence. Think of all the ways people are silenced—witnesses to oppression or violence, their testimony quashed by the powers that protect the status quo. All the women whose experience of sexual abuse and sexual harassment has been silenced by bullying, or threats, or pay-offs. The silence of victims, whose voices were, are, suppressed. The voices of prophets, who were silenced, like Martin Luther King, jr, assassinated almost 50 years ago today.
In Mark’s gospel, there is silence. There is the silence Jesus commands repeatedly when people he has healed, or evil spirits want to declare the Son of God. There is the silence he commands after the Transfiguration, as he, Peter, James, and John come back down from the mountain after their vision of Moses and Elijah. There is the silence of Jesus, when he is brought before the Chief Priests and he is accused of blasphemy. There is Jesus’ silence, when he stands before Pilate, and Pilate asks him about the charges against him.
And there is the silence, the silence of the women, who fled in terror and amazement.
An empty tomb, a message that Jesus is not here he is risen and he will meet you in Galilee, and then the women depart in fear and amazement and silence.
And nothing else. No miraculous appearance, no reassurance from the risen Christ, no sending out. Just an empty tomb, a command to go to Galilee, fear, and amazement, and silence.
Like so much of this gospel, from the very beginning right through to the crucifixion, it leaves us with few concrete answers, little certainty and no reassurance. We are left hanging, wondering. Like the women, we are fearful and silent.
An empty tomb, fear, amazement, silence.
Can you imagine those women, who had come with Jesus and the other disciples from Galilee. Women, and men, who had pinned all their hopes on this teacher. They had seen him heal people, cast out demons. They were with him along the road from Galilee. They heard him proclaim the coming of God’s reign, a new way of being in the world. They had watched in amazement as he forgave sins, ate with tax collectors and sinners, confounded the religious experts.
They may have had questions, all of them, about what it all meant, but they knew one thing, when they got to Jerusalem, something amazing, something big would happen.
And in Jerusalem, all signs pointed to that cataclysmic event. The triumphal entry, the debates in the temple with the authorities. Jesus running circles around them, embarrassing them publicly, the crowds delighted with what he said and how he bested his opponents.
Then it all came to an end, an arrest by night, a staged trial, and an execution by Rome. It was all over, except the grieving. All the men had fled or were laying low, fearful that their Galileean accents would bring them under suspicion from Roman troops and the religious authorities. So the women could stand near the cross bearing witness to Jesus’ death, and then watch as others buried him, and could come to the tomb to finish the embalming process and above all, grieve.
To this point, women had been Jesus’ most steadfast supporters. One had even been commended when she anointed him a few days earlier. Jesus said that she was doing it because she knew what was going to happen to him. Others had accompanied him, provided for him and the others along the way.
But the final mystery of the story, the final question Mark leaves is this. The women fled in terror and amazement, and told nothing to anyone for they were afraid. That’s another one of those ironic statements of which Mark is so fond. After all, if they told nothing to anyone, where did he get the story? Where did he, or anyone else hear of the empty tomb? How did they know to go on to Galilee to meet the risen Christ? Of course, they told someone, they must have, else Mark would not have written his gospel. If they had not told anyone, we would not be here!
That’s the line I’ve used repeatedly over the years—in sermons, bible studies, when quizzical, doubtful students asked me whether Mark could have ended the gospel this way, or whether those additional verses in chapter 16, verses that were clearly added later, were in fact a better ending to Mark’s gospel.
Tonight, I want to reflect on something else, on the women’s fear. Why were they afraid? Were they frightened of the empty tomb? Of the young man who appeared there?
Think about it. Whatever fears they might have had, they were brave enough to stand by publicly and watch Jesus die. Sure, they were “just” women, less threatening to Rome, but at the same time, they were his followers, his disciples, and the Romans must have known that. However afraid they may have been of Rome, of the religious authorities, they were brave enough to come out, early in the morning on the first day of the week, to come to the tomb.
We can think of this as their final act of love and devotion. They were performing their duty as Jesus’ loved ones, to perform the ritual anointing that was associated with burial. Caring for him, loving him, they came to the tomb, to do all those loving, intimate things, that human beings have done to their loved ones’ since the beginning of the species, the beginning of culture, to prepare their bodies for passage to the next life.
And then, suddenly, everything has changed. The body they were expecting to anoint and embalm was gone, and they were told, “He is risen!”
What if their fear was not about what had happened, but due to their uncertainty about what would happen next? What if they were afraid, not because of Jesus’ arrest and execution, but because they couldn’t understand the empty tomb and the young man’s words, He is raised from the dead.”
What if their fear had mostly to do not with the fact that their hopes were dashed by Jesus’ crucifixion, but by the miracle of resurrection?
We know the story; we know how it turns out, we know all the ways it’s been explained and interpreted over the centuries, and we’re all so familiarized to spectacular events by Hollywood special effects and computer generated imagery, that the otherness, the strangeness, the complete surprise of resurrection is hard for us to imagine.
To have our world blown open, our perspective transformed, our expectations upended—to have all that? Can we imagine that?
Can the cynicism, anger, and fear of our age be overwhelmed by the miracle and reality of resurrection? That the suffering of Jesus, the obedience and love that brought him to the cross, that made him just another victim alongside the hundreds of thousands, millions, perhaps who fell victim to Rome’s power, ended, not in defeat, death, and silence, but in something quite unexpected quite new.
The resurrection was so unexpected, that how could one respond in any other way than fear? It was proof, not just that God was vindicating Jesus, that God had intervened on Jesus’ behalf, just at the moment of greatest fear and despair. It was, is proof, that God is making things new, that God’s power and love are transforming the world, bringing about a reign of justice and peace.
They may have fled from the tomb in fear and amazement, and told no one, but in the end, they did tell what they had seen. Thanks be to God. Their fear was overcome by joy, and the good news burst forth from their lips. May our silence and fear also give way to joy, and may we also shout out the good news: Alleluia! Christ is Risen!